THAT HIGHLY PRESTIGIOUS CRYSTAL OWL AWARD
(FORTUNE Magazine) – In Steve Forbes's official campaign biography, just before the part where he helps Lech Walesa free Poland, comes a section where he establishes his economic credentials:
"Mr. Forbes is the only writer to have won the highly prestigious Crystal Owl Award four times. This prize was given by USX Corporation to the financial journalist whose economic forecasts for the coming year proved to be most accurate."
Well, Forbes did indeed win four Crystal Owls, but prestigiousness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Before you conclude that the Owl ranks as some kind of warm-up for the Nobel Prize, listen to the more humble views of other winners. "It's not the thing I'm most proud of in my life," says two-time winner Jack Markowitz, business editor of the Tribune-Review in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Another two-time champ, George Hess, contributing editor of 33 Metalproducing, a trade magazine, wondered why FORTUNE was even interested in his Owls. When told that Forbes is touting his four as a biographical high point, Hess laughs. "Christ, it was just a guessing game," he says.
The game took place every year around Christmas, when USX (formerly U.S. Steel) held a festive annual luncheon for business journalists in New York City. Organizers would hand out a questionnaire after the martinis and before the prime rib, asking attendees to predict what would happen to various economy-related statistics over the coming year. Forbes evidently excelled at predicting things like GDP growth and the Dow Jones industrial average, and must have done okay with other variables, such as the price of USX stock or the number of oil rigs in the U.S. Sometimes there was a tiebreaker question thrown in, like picking the winner of the World Series or the Super Bowl. "Some people put down funny answers; some took it seriously," says USX spokesman Bill Keslar, who often wrote the questions. "It wasn't terribly formal, just a lot of fun." Forbes must have taken it seriously. Had USX not discontinued the lunches after the 1991 affair because of dwindling attendance, he might well have won even more.
The press has pretty much swallowed the Owl's "prestige" as described by Forbes. Boston Globe columnist David Warsh, for instance, referred recently to the Owl event as "a rigorous contest." Even FORTUNE, in a recent cover story, took the bait. (In the same story, FORTUNE erroneously said Forbes was the only person to win the award more than once. FORTUNE regrets the error, but Hess and Markowitz don't: "No problem," says Hess. "It wasn't the greatest insult I've suffered," says Markowitz.)
There's nothing felonious about a little resume inflation, of course. Some might even argue that, in today's tough job market, puffing up a bullet point or two should be considered, well, just another capitalist tool.
REPORTER ASSOCIATES Lenore Schiff, Tricia Welsh